Exclusive: West End braced for World Cup penalties

West End theatres are bracing themselves for a fall in ticket sales of as much as 20% over the next month, with the football World Cup expected to seriously dent audience numbers.

Producers, venue owners and ticket agents are preparing for an especially tough period during June, when England will play at least three games – all of which clash with theatre performances. In 2006 – the last time a football World Cup was held – audiences in the West End dropped by 17%, 20%, 14% and 0.04% in the four weeks that England were involved in the tournament (week 23-26), compared with the previous year when there had been no World Cup. In 2007, these weeks returned to pre-World Cup levels.

This year’s fixtures are also less kind to theatre than those in 2006. Then, England played only two games on a Friday or Saturday evening in their run-up to the quarter-finals of the tournament. This year, if England reach the same stage, the team will have played at least three, and probably four, matches on Friday or Saturday nights. If they reach the final, they could play as many as five games during these peak theatre slots.

Nimax Theatres chief executive and Society of London Theatre president Nica Burns told The Stage that theatre producers “dread” the World Cup. She added: “It’s 64 matches in 31 days, which is an awful lot of men and quite a lot of women glued to their TV sets. On a personal basis, certainly in terms of my theatres and productions, I’m braced for it.”

Andrew Peterson, managing director of West End Theatre Bookings, said he also expected the World Cup to impact on sales, warning the better England do, the worse it will be. He said: “It does very much depend on the fortunes of the England football team. The further they progress, the further the country gets caught up in England World Cup fever, and I think if they do manage to progress to the semi-finals, then whatever days precede that and the day of the game will be massively affected.

“The most significant impact we saw was during Euro 96 – but that was a tournament that was in this country and was a tournament England did well at.”

Peterson said last-minute sales were likely to be the worst affected and the event could also affect tourists. “It’s not just the day of the games,” he said. “If there are celebrations around Trafalgar Square, I think some of the tourists might be a little reluctant to venture out.”

Burns said she expected some shows to be more resilient than others, with productions such as Legally Blonde possibly benefiting from female audiences wanting to avoid the World Cup. Both she and Peterson added it had already been a “tough” few weeks for ticket sales – with disruption due to the general election and the volcanic ash cloud – but they both expected sales to pick up after the World Cup.

“We’ll do what we always do, which is weather it, but it’s been hard,” said Burns.

The FIFA World Cup runs from June 11 to July 11.

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